Olympic Gold medalist swimmer: winners persevere


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Three-time Olympic medalist swimmer Rowdy Gaines imparted life skills to Suntree Elementary School students May 13, showing off one of his three gold medals.

photo by Linda Wiggins

Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines combined inspirational life-skills messages with swim safety for the nearly 600 students of Suntree Elementary School May 13 before hitting the water at the adjacent Suntree YMCA, one of 28 pools he now oversees as a Central Florida YMCA vice president.

“Who are your role models?” asked Ambrose “Rowdy” Gaines IV, a U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member with three Olympic golds, an International Swimming Hall of Fame member and fundraiser for USA Swimming, who helps U.S. athletes pursue Olympic gold.

Hands shot up to name famous athletes.

“You might admire them for their skill and celebrity, but it’s the people who care about you and support you every day who are your true role models, your teachers, your family.”

Gaines is a swimming analyst for television networks ESPN and NBC, including coverage of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, the London 2012 Summer Olympics and next year's Rio de Janeiro Brazil 2016 Summer Olympics.

Gaines unsuccessfully tried to excel in a number of sports in his teens and discovered his love for swimming at age 17, learning to swim at a YMCA pool near his Winter Haven home in Central Florida. He excelled enough to earn a scholarship at Auburn University where he became a five-time NCAA champion.

He qualified for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and was expected to place well before the U.S. boycotted the event. His father encouraged him to try again and at age 25 he won the gold against chief rival Mark Stockwell of Australia, four years his junior. The gold and silver medalists are now good friends, with Gaines recently staying at Stockwell’s home Down Under for two weeks.

In 1991, Gaines was  paralyzed with Guillain-Barré syndrome. After a six-month hospitalization, he experienced a surprising full recovery attributed largely to his superb physical condition as a competitive swimmer. He eventually regained world-class times and, at the age of 35, became the oldest swimmer to qualify for the trials for the 1996 Summer Olympics. He decided not to compete and instead continued his career as a television commentator, covering swimming for NBC at the Games.

“Your lives are going to be like roller coasters,” he told his diminutive fans. “You’ll have good times and bad times, and it will be those valleys, not the good times, that define your life.”